Earlier this summer, Congress expected to return to Capitol Hill and jump immediately into a debate over the debt ceiling, a continuing resolution, and the ongoing debacle of Obamacare. Those topics appeared to be temporarily shelved when President Obama demanded a war authorization to attack Syria and the Bashar al-Assad regime, thanks to a year of ineptitude and dithering on an ad-libbed “red line.”
In the end, though, Obama’s case for war was not only deeply unpopular among voters, it didn’t convince members of his own party in Congress, either.
Secretary of State John Kerry ad-libbed a dismissal of a diplomatic solution the US never bothered pursuing that allowed Russia to take control of global diplomacy – to the point where Obama’s planned war speech to the nation on Tuesday turned into a “disingenuous,” “incoherent mess.”
After being stymied on his Syria strategy, the White House probably welcomes the opportunity to return to domestic politics, but Obama has credibility issues here as well. With less than three weeks to go before the Affordable Care Act exchanges officially open for business, the wheels continue to come off the Obamacare wagon.
Republicans have a target-rich environment for the political battles over the ACA and budget, with the popularity of ObamaCare plummeting with the deadline approaching. A new CNN poll shows approval now only at 39 percent, down twelve points since the beginning of the year, but dropping fastest among two core Democratic groups: women, and households making less than $50,000 a year, who would presumably benefit most from the subsidies in the ACA.
The only question is what strategy will get the best result. The goal is to stop ObamaCare before the Obama administration starts handing out subsidies to individual-exchange consumers, which Republicans see as a sort of Rubicon beyond which Americans will be hooked. There are two strategies (defunding or delaying), and two battlegrounds (the debt ceiling and the continuing resolution), and the options merge and diverge in critical ways.
Tea Party conservatives want to fight for complete defunding of Obamacare, both in the fight over the debt-ceiling limit and the CR. Defunding would have to take place in the CR debate, although the debt ceiling could still be used as leverage to get to that point. That is what defunding advocates propose in order to force Obama to sign off on defunding in order to keep the US out of technical default.
Defunding would certainly be the most complete solution. That would create at least a de facto delay for a year for some of the ACA functions, but not all of them. Most of the funding for Obamacare comes from statutory spending and not budgetary spending, which takes the context out of the budget fight altogether. A recent Congressional Research Service analysis requested from Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) showed that the IRS would still collect taxes, state and federal ACA exchanges would still operate, and most importantly, HHS would still fund subsidies for health insurance through them.
If the goal is to stop the subsidies, then the defunding strategy would not succeed, not unless its backers could get 60 votes in the Senate for a complete repeal of the entire ACA, along with Obama’s signature on it. That opportunity slipped away at the last election.
What about the delay strategy? Grassroots conservatives dislike this option as a kick-the-can-down-the-road strategy, but it has its advantages. First, a delay of the individual mandate and the ACA exchanges would actually achieve the goal of shutting down the subsidies, something that defunding won’t accomplish. Second, the Obama administration has provided ample precedent for delaying key parts of the ACA, both on its own and through Congress, complete with presidential signatures blessing them. Again on Senator Coburn’s request, the CRS detailed 19 instances in which the White House either approved Congressional delays on the ACA or instituted them administratively – most notoriously on the employer mandates and the insurer out-of-pocket caps, both of which cut against consumers while imposing a mandate to force them into the system anyway.
The challenge for delay advocates is which ground to choose for the fight. The debt ceiling provides the most immediate leverage – but also the greater political danger. Republicans used this as leverage to less-than-successful effect during the three-plus years that the Democrat-controlled Senate refused to conduct normal-order budgeting, which at least gave the GOP a fig leaf of rhetorical cover for the tactic.
The CR and the following FY2014 budget are flowing through normal order now, though, and disconnecting the debt ceiling limit from the approved spending by Congress is both disingenuous and dangerous. A game of chicken on that basis would put US credit ratings at risk and potentially make borrowing much more expensive – borrowing that will take place anyway, and on an issue that doesn’t directly relate to borrowing or deficits.
In this case, Republicans on Capitol Hill might find that their safer ground to force a delay is also the more effective ground – the CR that will precede the FY2014 budget. While the threat of a partial government shutdown – and that’s what this would be, in its full form -- won’t necessarily stop the exchanges and the readying of subsidies, the pressure on other areas of the government will create leverage on the White House that can’t easily be dismissed.
The activist government model employed by the Obama administration needs continuity in funding. Democrats would have to defend a refusal to extend to consumers the same kind of delays the President has already granted to all other stakeholders in the ACA while costs soar and the exchanges themselves are so incomplete as to put voters at risk for identity theft.
While Obama would refuse to sign off on a repeal, the dichotomy of leaving consumers to twist in the wind while employers and insurers get valuable breaks might be enough for the White House to back down temporarily from this fight. After his Syria retreat, Obama has burned so much capital with fellow Democrats who publicly called for war just to see Obama back away that he may not have much choice but to let them off the hook with constituents angry over Obamacare.
Republicans will have the public and the higher ground of responsible policy on their side with that strategy, that battleground, and that goal in mind until the 2014 midterm election gives them the opportunity to take the fight farther.
This column was updated today at 8:55 am.